When the Towers Fell
by Sr. Maureen Skelly, SCH
I have been a police chaplain in New York City since 1996. For the most part, my duties were to visit police personnel who were hospitalized and some routine counseling.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my office at Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat House where I'm a staff-member, when I received an urgent call from the chaplain's office to come to Manhattan right away. The World Trade Center had been bombed. I was told to help identify bodies and minister to the victims of the tragedy.
By 5 PM, I was over at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge where there were hundreds of EMS units helping police, fire fighters and others injured in the bombing. I went to the place where bodies of the dead were to be identified and waited for hours, but there were no bodies. That was the first clue I had to the immensity of this tragedy.
The next few days I spent down near the Trade Center caring for the police and fire fighters, giving them some water and offering a few kind words. I remember seeing shoes, baby shoes, sneakers, little dolls, bagels from the vendors' stalls, smashed chairs, broken windows.
Rescue workers were there with their dogs and I asked one of them if they had found anyone. "Chaplain, look at your shoes," he said. I looked and they were covered with dust. He said to me, "You are standing in a crematorium." That took my breath away.
When I got home that evening I took my dust-covered shoes and put them by my bed and knelt by them and said "I'm so sorry you have to be here with me, and not with your wife, or your husband or your children." I didn't know what to do with those shoes for several days, until finally I went to the little garden outside our house and shook the dust into a little place I had dug so that those I had carried with me could have a resting place.
above right: Sr Maureen Skelly, SCH
The Fresh Kills Landfill
Our Jesuit retreat house on Staten Island became a triage center for police, firefighters and Red Cross workers following September 11th. Families of victims came there with DNA samples to help identify them. From Monday to Fridays I was involved in counseling families and rescue workers. At the same time I went once or twice weekly to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island where the remains of the Trade Center were brought and placed in seven spots– Tower One, Tower Two, Tower Three, every section with its own place.
The dedicated personnel from the CIA, FBI, New York Police, and other groups who sifted through the debris searching for those who had died and for the facts behind the disaster continually amazed me. The more I went there the more I faced the mystery of the tragedy. But to tell the truth, my main concern was to survive. I had all I could do just to catch my breath.
The landfill was such a complicated place. On that vast open stretch of land without any vegetation they laid out the debris from the World Trade complex, parts of the planes that crashed into them and the human remains of those who had perished. Although I was there in a religious role, I hardly looked religious, dressed in a hazard suit and boots and hardhat to walk in the ruins. I hardly felt like praying; my only prayer was "Help me get through today."
One day, at my wits end, I was walking along a path where I hoped to get some relief from it all, when I heard someone calling, "Chaplain, come here, we've found a torso of a body." So I went to the morgue that was set up in a section of the landfill. Entering that cold building I prayed that I wouldn't throw up and wouldn't faint.
When they unraveled the torso, it was just bones. Somewhat in a daze, I began to pray over it and suddenly I heard words from the book of Job coming from my lips: "In my flesh, I shall see God. I know my Redeemer lives and I shall be raised up on the last day." It was a strange experience. Inwardly, I was desolate. Yet this beautiful song of hope was coming from my lips. right: aerial image of Ground Zero in April, 2002, New York Office of Technology.
The Stations of the Cross
At home afterwards, I found myself returning to one of our oldest forms of meditation, the Stations of the Cross. There it was before me; I had seen it again. Jesus was condemned to die. And so were they. They did nothing except go to work that ordinary morning. They did what they were supposed to do, and they died as the planes delivered their unjust judgment. Jesus was condemned to die. It came back to me in a new way.
And then he falls. I saw so many people that day falling, hiding under cars, and having their lives saved, even as they fall. It was the same mystery happening again.
Jesus meets his mother. The World Trade tragedy offered so many reminders of this scene; one person holding another as they stumbled away from the devastation, one giving courage to the other.
Then there was Simon of Cyrene. So many Simon of Cyrenes appeared that day. One of them saved the life of a friend of mine, when he pulled her from under a car near the Trade Center and said, "My name is Eddy, follow me or you'll die." So many from the crowd that day reached out to help others to live.
When Jesus went to his death, many people just looked on, their hearts going out to him. That was all they could do. On that day in September, so many looked on helplessly, unable to do a thing, yet they shared in the event in an outpouring of grief and sympathy.
The women wept when Jesus died. Now they were weeping again, and everyone wept with them. Like Veronica, people took towels to wipe away tears from another's eyes and sweat from their faces.
If you wish to see the dead body of Jesus being removed from the cross, remember the picture of the body of Father Michael Judge being carried from the wreckage by firefighters. We had seen it before.
There were so many people waiting that day, waiting for someone to rise from those ashes, waiting for a sign of hope, waiting through the days that followed.
Believing in Resurrection
In those awful days that followed September 11th, I found myself meditating especially on the mystery of the tomb of Jesus. Some years ago as a traveler to the Holy Land I noticed the attention ancient people gave to their burial places. For Christians the tomb of Jesus was unique; it was empty." He is not here, he has risen." We believe in resurrection.
As I counseled those who lost loved ones in that disaster, I noticed that at first they clung to the moment of death; only gradually were they able to realize that the one they loved was not there. Just as Jesus gradually made his followers aware that he had risen, so they experienced signs of resurrection through dreams, old letters, remembered moments. They began to less fixate on the Trade Center because "he is not here."
The mystery of the Passion of Jesus helps us through the worst of times. In my visits to the Fresh Kills Landfill following the disaster I got to know many of the police personnel serving there. One day I brought some little crosses that I had from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the police barracks I mentioned to the Inspector that I had some crosses that had touched the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; maybe some of the men and women would like to have them. From all parts of the barracks they came and eagerly took the little crosses and pinned them on their police shields. They wore them all the while they were on that site where death seemed so triumphant.
At the opening in New York City last December of an exhibit of remnants from the World Trade Center, I met one of the FBI agents who worked at the landfill those days. "Sister, I still have that little cross you gave us," he said, "I'm holding on to it. Thanks."
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